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Review board recommends firing 2 Chicago cops in fatal 2016 OIS

The same report concluded that a third officer, who shot and killed Paul O’Neal, was justified because he reasonably believed that O’Neal had a gun


By Jeremy Gorner and Jason Meisner
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Two Chicago police officers should be fired for shooting at a moving vehicle without justification during a chase that ended with the killing of an unarmed black teen in 2016, disciplinary officials ruled in a report obtained Friday by the Chicago Tribune.

Officers Michael Coughlin Jr. and Jose Torres endangered the public and the lives of their fellow officers when they shot at 18-year-old Paul O’Neal as he tried to flee police in a stolen Jaguar convertible on a residential street in the South Shore neighborhood, according to the report by the now-defunct Independent Police Review Authority.

In this July 28, 2016 file image made from a body camera video provided by the Independent Police Review Authority, Chicago police officers fire into a stolen car driven by Paul O'Neal, killing him, in Chicago. (Chicago Police Department/Independent Police Review Authority via AP)
In this July 28, 2016 file image made from a body camera video provided by the Independent Police Review Authority, Chicago police officers fire into a stolen car driven by Paul O'Neal, killing him, in Chicago. (Chicago Police Department/Independent Police Review Authority via AP)

The same report concluded that a third officer, Jose Diaz, who ultimately shot and killed O’Neal during an ensuing foot chase, was justified because he reasonably believed in the chaos that O’Neal had a gun and had already fired shots at the police. In fact, the only shots fired came from fellow officers.

It was recommended, however, that Diaz be suspended for six months for kicking O’Neal and yelling “Bitch ass mother------, f------ shoot at us!” while the teen lay mortally wounded in a backyard.

That same profanity-laced statement, which was captured on a police body camera, convinced investigators that Diaz “genuinely believed” at the time that O’Neal had fired at him, according to the report, obtained by the Tribune through an open records request.

A fourth officer, Mohammad Baker, was also recommended for a weeklong suspension for failing to activate his body camera.

None of the four officers could be reached for comment Friday.

The 62-page report was completed last September, shortly before IPRA was replaced by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

In November, police Superintendent Eddie Johnson concurred with the recommendation that Coughlin and Torres be fired, according to Frank Giancamilli, a spokesman for the Police Department. The Chicago Police Board will ultimately decide their fate, but as of Friday, no disciplinary charges had been lodged, according to Max Caproni, the board’s executive director.

Giancamilli had no information on what Johnson recommended for Diaz.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by O’Neal’s mother against the officers and the city is pending in U.S. District Court.

Reached by phone on Friday, attorney Michael Oppenheimer, who represents O’Neal’s family, praised the decision to push for the firings of Coughlin and Torres, calling the officers’ behavior “ridiculous at best and criminal at worst.”

“For them to open fire in the reckless manner of which they did put not only themselves in danger, fellow police officers, the people on the street,” said Oppenheimer, who had previously asked for a special prosecutor to be appointed to look into criminal charges against the officers involved.

He also said IPRA was far too lenient on Diaz.

The release of IPRA’s findings comes just three weeks after police oversight officials recommended that another officer be fired as a result of a different fatal police shooting in December 2015.

In that case, COPA concluded that Officer Robert Rialmo unjustifiably shot a baseball bat-wielding teen and an innocent bystander while responding to a domestic disturbance.

O’Neal was fatally shot about 7:30 p.m. on July 28, 2016, after officers tried to stop him on the South Side as he drove a Jaguar convertible that had been reported stolen in southwest suburban Bolingbrook.

After O’Neal struck two Chicago police vehicles with the Jaguar, Coughlin fired nine rounds at the car as it moved away from him and toward the direction of Torres, according to the report and body cam footage of the incident that was later made public by IPRA. After the Jaguar passed him, Torres also fired one shot as the car sped down the block and crashed head-on with a squad car being driven by Diaz.

O’Neal then bailed out of the Jaguar and fled on foot as Diaz chased him through the backyards of several homes in the 7300 block of South Merrill Avenue, firing a total of five times, according to the report. Diaz appeared to take the final shot while aiming his pistol over a backyard fence that O’Neal had scaled, the report said. O’Neal was struck once in the middle of his back and collapsed near a back porch.

As three officers stood over O’Neal lying face down on the ground, Diaz was captured on a body cam video kicking him, according to the report. Asked in an interview why he did so, Diaz answered, “Anger, rage, frustration,” the report said.

Police body cameras also captured Diaz telling officers he thought O’Neal had fired shots at him.

“Dude, I heard shots. I don’t f------ know, man,” he said in footage from one officer’s camera. “When he came out the (inaudible), I shot at him.”

Standing with a sergeant in the backyard, Diaz seemed to grow distraught at the fact that no weapon was recovered from O’Neal.

“Man, this is so f----- up, man. I don’t want nothing to happen to that f------ guy, dude,” Diaz said to the sergeant, according to the video released by IPRA. “The way s---’s going man, I’m gonna be f------ crucified, bro.”

In its report, IPRA said Diaz violated department policy by kicking O’Neal, yelling profanities and failing to activate his body camera before the chase. In exonerating Diaz for the shooting itself, however, IPRA said it was reasonable to think Diaz was in fear of his life when he opened fire.

“Officer Diaz faced an extremely tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving situation,” the report stated. “Officer Diaz perceived that the shots were fired from the Jaguar or at least from (the) direction of the Jaguar.”

In recommending that Coughlin and Torres be fired, IPRA said in its report that both officers risked the lives of their fellow officers as well as any innocent bystanders who happened to be on the street when they opened fire on the stolen Jaguar. Their explanations to interviewers that they were trying to stop the vehicle didn’t hold up, according to the report.

“A reasonable officer would know that even if the driver is struck, the vehicle is likely to crash in uncontrolled fashion, again putting bystanders and other motorists at great risk,” the report said.

The report also blasted Coughlin for comments he made after the shooting — also captured on a body camera — complaining that he would have to go on mandatory desk duty while the incident was under investigation.

“F--- man, I’m going to be on the desk for 30 g------ days now. F------ desk duty for 30 days now,” Coughlin said. “Motherf-----. I shot. He almost hit him.”

Coughlin acknowledged in an interview with IPRA that he’d made the statement out of “frustration,” a justification that was “not adequate,” according to the report.

“Officer Coughlin’s statement was completely inappropriate and brought discredit to CPD,” the report concluded. “The statement demonstrates a lack of professionalism and a lack of empathy and respect for (O’Neal), who Officer Coughlin knew had just been shot.”

O’Neal’s killing came at a time when Mayor Rahm Emanuel was trying to restore public trust in the Police Department amid a U.S. Department of Justice probe of policing practices — an investigation that stemmed from the court-ordered release in 2015 of police dashboard camera video showing the fatal shooting of black teen Laquan McDonald.

The McDonald scandal also led to widespread criticism of the city’s policy to withhold videos and other evidence involving police-involved shootings from the public. The city changed its policy in the spring of 2016, shortly before the O’Neal shooting.

After the incident, Johnson broke with longstanding practice and almost immediately revoked the police powers of the three officers who fired shots, saying it appeared from the videos they had violated departmental policy. A week later, IPRA released the body camera and dash cam videos of the incident to the public.

©2018 the Chicago Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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